STAIRCASE Southwark Playhouse SE1

 YESTERDAY’S MEN LOVING MEN

   The mission of Two’s Company is producing  “new plays from the past”, and their talent is for treasure-hunting . Plays written now about past decades are fine, but there is something grittily satisfying about contemporaneous writing:  especially forgotten ones,  outside the famous names worn smooth by repetition . This company’s  WW1 plays taught me more about how it really felt than any documentary; London Wall vividly evoked the emergence of women out of chaperonage into the office jungle, The Cutting of the Cloth and A Day By The Sea – these are all recorded here – had separate and particular value in each setting. . 

This one,  in its day, was important;  historically and emotionally it still is.  1969 saw gay consenting-adult same-sex love legal, but gay men still heavily persecuted legally and socially . Charles Dyer’s  two-hander set in a barber’s shop was picked out by Codron, done at the RSC with  Paul Scofield and on Broadway with a very camped up Burton.  It was subject of an entertaining argument with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors, too,well worth reading in the programme. 

      So here it is again, with Paul Rider as the resigned, more benevolently resentful Harry, and John Sackville as the volatile Charlie, a failed actor to whom Harry gave a trade and a home.  For two hours the pair circle round one another, bantering and bickering and dealing with a triply awkward situation. They are roundedly idiosyncratic and human, not queeny caricatures but ordinary men hobbled by the thousand shames and aggressions of their condition (when Harry, who longs for children of his own, ran a scout troop he kept being asked pointed whether he was married). Charlie actually was once briefly married, and his daughter Cassie is to visit. But he doesn’t want her to work out what Harry is to him.  There’s guilt about his mother in a home,too,  while Harry’s Ma is up in the attic.  It’s a scratchy day:  Harry is turbaned, miserable with his alopecia and wig-dread, and to cap it all Charlie awaits his summons for a mild offence. (“A gag” sitting on a man’s knee in a pub). It turns out not to be a first offence, nor is his theatrical history quite authentic.

       It takes excellent writing to hold together a two-hander on one intimate set (perhaps even more when as director Tricia Thorns says, Covid rules mean distancing, thus even less hugging than the censor cut out, and separate props not to be shared). The writing is indeed fine : I specially like Harry’s rueful musing on how “all sex should be better organized, nicer, cleaner, prettier..not so folding-up and underneath” .    Better, he reflects with middle-aged wisdom, if it just involved a graceful waving of antennae. Ping-pong fast exchanges work well most of the time, and Rider is constantly engaging and irresistibly watchable in his chunky cockney solidity. But the longer first half drags at times, and Sackville’s lively Charlie never quite gives the lines time to land.

       So when Harry does explode – the full Pinter at one point –  it startles and grips, whereas Charlie’s rise into melodrama in the second half is not quite the shock it should be.Too much fuel burnt too early.  

     But goodness,  they’re believable and identifiable, and evocation of those ancient shames and crushing minority lonelinesses reminds us why Pride marches were needed and still are. And when it gets close to a deep-blue-sea ending but swerves elegantly away from it, there’s proper satisfaction. Southwark is always, always worth the trip.

Box office http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.   To 17 July.

Streaming both performances on July 3

Rating three.  

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